Who's covering whom? Sports sections lag in diversity

Two years after Ralph Wiley died so young at age 51, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, which I direct, released a study of key sports department positions at all of the Associated Press Sports Editors newspapers in the United States and Canada. The lack of diversity we found in that study underlines the importance of Wiley's contributions to our understanding of sport in America, especially at a time when people of color dominate the percentages of players in the NBA and the NFL, as well as in college football and basketball.

The study reveals that 95 percent of our sports editors, 87 percent of our assistant sports editors, 90 percent of our columnists and 87.5 percent of our reporters are white. Only 5 percent of sports editors are women, and the numbers aren't much higher for women in the other positions we studied. Thirteen percent of assistant sports editors, 7 percent of columnists and 10 percent of reporters are women.

In the all-important position of sports editor, our major papers employ only three African-Americans and four Latinos. Among columnists, there are only 19 African-Americans, three Latinos and two Asians on the 303 major newspapers in the United States and Canada that participated in our study.

Sometimes, the interpretation by an overwhelmingly white media of the activities of players of color on and off the field can cause readers to miss an important point in the story, or perhaps miss a story altogether. Wiley was keenly attuned to those points and those stories.

Sports editors decide what appears in our newspapers, including critical issues such as who is covered, what is said about them and where the stories are placed. Columnists shape our opinions about sports and athletes. To have so few African-American voices on our major newspapers denies us the sensibility of writers such as Wiley, who was willing to look beyond the surface of a story line.

Wiley regularly spoke to my classes at the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida. Once, a student asked him, "Does your being African-American make you think differently about a story than a white person?"

He responded: "There are so many gifted white writers who do think broadly and have no negative racial imagery that filters into their stories. However, there are occasions when they might not know what to look for."

He told us about his 1989 Sports Illustrated cover story on Raghib "Rocket" Ismail, an All-American football player at Notre Dame. He spent a great deal of time preparing to write the piece, and became close to Ismail and his family. Wiley told us that as his deadline approached, something was bothering him about Fatma Ismail, Raghib's mother. Fatma and her husband, Ibrahim, who had passed away, were said to be Islamic and from the Sudan in Africa.

Ultimately, Fatma Ismail revealed a truth to Wiley, one that had been hidden for decades: She was from Mississippi, and Ibrahim was from New Jersey. No one knew; no one had asked. Wiley could have written that Raghib Ismail's mother was a liar, and that he'd been raised within the fa├žade of false parents. That, Wiley told the students, was what his editors expected him to do. But he knew better, and told the editors, "I'll go further into it but I am not sure how it will come out."

When Wiley asked Fatma Ismail why she'd lied, she revealed her motives. Ismail's mother had decided to change her identity because she believed it would decrease the level of racism that she and her children would face if the people who met them thought she was African rather than African-American. Her husband had told the same lie to her, and she believed him for almost two decades.

Fatma Ismail might not have shared that secret with a white writer. And a white writer might not have asked the questions that got the answers that Wiley sought.

Wiley captured the essence of the racism that led the Ismail family to hide who they really were. He wrote: " . . . the charade worked. It accomplished her purpose -- if her purpose was to give positive identities to her sons while disguising her own. The faith offered dignity, the deception offered a hiding place."

Fatma told Wiley, "I am sorry for the charade. It has caused me great pain."

He concluded, "It has also helped give her three fine sons."

Wiley wrote with that level of insight for ESPN.com until his death on June 13, 2004.

Many stories in the media in recent years are about incidents in which athletes have been arrested for crimes such as sexual assault or possession of drugs. The cumulative effect of these stories can create a perception that a high percentage of athletes are sexual predators and/or drug users. The stories often are about football and basketball players, who, as a group, are largely African-American. The notion that African-Americans are more violent against women or more inclined to use drugs seems to be reinforced when the media reports 100 stories a year -- roughly two a week -- about athletes committing sexual assault, according to research by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. Institute research also suggests that the media reports approximately 75 stories a year about athletes being involved with drugs.

In our politically correct society, whites seem disinclined to speak about stereotypes that many whites hold about African-Americans. Racial studies show that those attitudes remain common, but are rarely articulated. Thus, when the public reads about African-American athletes, some of whom commit acts that are illegal, stereotypical imagery can be reinforced.

When such incidents occur, I am often called by writers looking for a comment. In my experience, African-American writers have been more likely to go deeper than a surface story about a specific athlete who has been accused of a sexual assault, and have been more willing to put the incident in the context of a nation in which an average of 4.5 million women are battered (according to a National Violence Against Women Survey in 2000) and 800,000 are raped every year (according to The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network).

Even if we assume that incidents in which athletes are accused are vastly underreported -- even if we multiply the number of reported incidents by 10 -- athletes still would make up only a tiny fraction of those totals. Yes, athletes, including African-American athletes, are part of the problem; but they certainly are not representative of the larger problem of violence against women.

In the case of stories about drug abuse, many African-American writers I speak with and read are more likely to include in their coverage facts such as the number of Americans who use heroin (2.1 million) and cocaine (1.9 million). The face of the drug problem in America should not belong solely to athletes.

I know many brilliant and insightful white writers who also regularly expand on the simple information of an athlete's arrest and put their stories into the context of society. However, I believe that, in general, our newspapers most often report only on the specific incident, and thus potentially reinforce society's stereotypes.

The more voices we can see and hear from people such as Ralph Wiley, Mike Wilbon, Bill Rhoden and Stephen A. Smith, the more likely it is that we can understand what is actually going on in our society and in our sports.

I congratulate the Associated Press Sports Editors for their courage in requesting this study, and I hope that this data will be used as a tool to look at ways in which newspapers can broaden their base of people of color who are sports editors and their assistants, and reporters and columnists who can shed even more light on all of the dimensions of sport in America.

Diversity is an imperative for the news media. When the media covers sports with staffs that don't come close to mirroring the percentages of people of color and women in the workforce -- and, especially, that don't reflect the percentages of the people they're covering -- it exacerbates the problem.

Hopefully, this APSE Racial and Gender Report Card released by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida in conjunction with the Associated Press Sports Editors will begin to bring about change.

Richard E. Lapchick is the Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 12 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the Director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.